Coronavirus: Leaked Pentagon memo warns pandemic could last until summer 2021, including likely second wave, reports say

Oliver O'Connell
Defense Secretary Mark Esper pictured with White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

A leaked Pentagon draft memo says that the US should expect for the coronavirus pandemic to last until the summer of 2021, according to those that have seen it.

The Department of Defence document, obtained by Task & Purpose, advises the that the military prepare for a “globally-persistent” Covid-19 environment with no effective vaccine until “at least the summer of 2021.

Authored by Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, though not finalised or signed by him, the memo warns against any complacency that the virus will now be easily defeated: “We have a long path ahead, with the real possibility of a resurgence of Covid-19.”

It continues: “Therefore we must now refocus our attention on resuming critical missions, increasing levels of activity, and making necessary preparations should a significant resurgence of Covid-19 occur later this year.”

These preparations are likely to include the repositioning of forces and supplies in a faster-paced summer move cycle in which personnel are redeployed domestically and internationally.

Task & Purpose reports that the memo was prepared by Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defence for homeland defence and global security. It is intended as an update to a 1 April guidance document issued by Mr Esper.

A Pentagon spokesperson said that the new document is outdated. Indeed, since early May it had been circulated among the various branches of the military for feedback, a source told Task & Purpose. It is unclear if Mr Esper has yet seen the document.

Pentagon sources confirmed to The Hill that there are versions of plans with similar language to the leaked memo, but none have been approved. Senior officials are also discussing plans to continue with the summer 2020 move cycle — also not yet finalised.

“All indications suggest we will be operating in a globally-persistent Covid-19 environment in the months ahead,” the memo reads. “This will likely continue until there is wide-scale immunity, through immunisation, and some immunity post-recovery from the virus.”

As well as predicting no viable treatment or vaccine until next summer at the earliest, the scenario laid out by the Pentagon assumes successive waves of infection in clusters tied to seasonal flu outbreaks; continued shortages of personal protective equipment; and testing not being able to completely assure an absence of the virus, and therefore requiring extensive contact tracing and monitoring.

As recently as Friday, Mr Esper said that the Pentagon would “deliver by the end of this year a vaccine at scale to treat the American people and our partners abroad.”

A spokesperson later clarified that the end of the year was “a goal”, and experts believe that even if everything were to go perfectly, a 12 to 18-month timeline for a widespread rollout of a vaccine would be optimistic.

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